Is providing your photography for free a way to begin a career as a professional photographer?
That’s the question that arose while watching a recent conversation (see video below) conducted by Zack Arias with Mikael Cho, the founder, and owner of Unsplash. Unsplash is a platform where photographers submit their images for use by anyone for free including commercial use without financial compensation or even attribution to the photographer.
Arias was both surprised and angry at a service he believed contributed to the continued devaluing of photography and photographers. It’s an issue that has been a concern for photographers who have increasingly faced reduced earnings for their work whether shooting stock, editorial or commercial. But rather than adding another angry voice to the chorus, Arias sought out Cho to have a discussion about how it might be or not be a great thing for photographers. It’s worth the watch.
First off, props to both Arias and Cho for having this conversation and sharing it publicly. In a time were civil debate seems a lost art, both of these men had a frank and honest conversation. It provides some valuable insight that is important to understand when contributing to such a service including concerns over liability.
While Arias explained how the licensing of images is the means by which a commercial photographer earns his living, Cho countered that there are many clients who because of the cost of such licenses are prohibited from being able to use such work. Hence Unsplash provides designers access to quality images that otherwise would not be available to them. Though photographers aren’t compensated, the hope is that relationships will be built which may result in future collaborations where photographers can earn money for their work. It’s about building relationships rather than immediately earning money. It’s short-term loss for long-term gain.
This is the supposed new model. Rather than building a body of work, accumulating clients through cold-calling and in-person meetings, a photographer gains access to a larger audience and potential clients. Granted these potential clients wouldn’t pay anything, to begin with, but if the work is good and a relationship is built, a paid opportunity might eventually be on the horizon. It’s sort of the YouTube model of marketing where you produce free content, build an audience and eventually find a way to monetize that audience. But what may work in the world of social influencers does not automatically translate to a business that is based on providing a service.
I think that applying such an approach to marketing and producing paid opportunities is flawed and that leads me to the question. Are there any photographers who have actually built a successful professional career in this way? I’m not talking about the photographer who may have made a contact and earned a job here or there from the resulting work. Rather, are there examples of photographers who converted such users into paying clients and have succeeded in building a sustainable business? Or is this simply the cliched argument that tries to convince a photographer that exposure is more valuable to their career than a check?
I am doubtful of that because my experiences have demonstrated that once a client can afford to pay a photographer for their services, they don’t go back to the photographer that worked for them for free. They prefer to work with a photographer who they feel will provide them value for their money. The photographer who has valued their work at zero provides no value in that equation. As with many things we spend our money on, we want to know that were are getting the most for our money and that includes photography.
The lure of working for free is often been seen by new photographers as the means to get the foot in the door. And while you might be able to get the foot in the door that doesn’t mean that you get invited to the party.
There is no doubt that platforms like this will continue to arise and that thousands of photographers will readily contribute to them. However, does a platform like Unsplash provide a provable means to earn a living as photographer? Or is it just another source for free photography which promises momentary exposure and slim possibilities.